The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games are just over two years away and Britain's high performance sports and athletes are firmly focused on their Road to Rio.
Following the recent launch of UK Sport's Para Coach2RIO, we spoke to Paula Dunn, the first female Head Coach at British Athletics, about her transition from athlete to coach, and how she is leaving no stone unturned as she targets success in Rio...
You were the fastest female British sprinter of the 1990s, winning Commonwealth medals and competing at Olympic Games. How has British sport, and particularly life as an elite athlete, changed since you were competing?
It’s been a complete 180 degree shift. When I started you were very much amateur, you had to form your own team around you. I always worked part time; I had to find my own physio, sports doctor, nutritionist. I was very fortunate that I had a coach who helped me on that journey but you were very much isolated. Today the athletes, although many of them may not realise it, are so fortunate. They get APAs to help them, to offset some of their sporting and living costs, they have a superb English Institute of Sport network so they can access all the support services they need. It’s like chalk and cheese! The competition is the same but the route to getting there, the athlete pathway, is completely different – and all for the positive.
How did you get involved with coaching and did you find the transition from athlete to coach hard? What challenges did you face?
For me the transition was quite easy as, in my mind, I had finished my athletic career, and felt it finished at the right time. Because I was already working with a world class coach, I was still going down to the track, and I fell into coaching by default because there were some girls at the track who needed some help. I was only going to look after them for six weeks, and I was there for ten years!
I had the best person to mentor me, my coach, who really questioned and challenged me, and after two or three years I started to take more leadership. I was really fortunate. If my coach hadn’t seen me doing it and believed I could do it I don’t think I’d have had the confidence.
How did you get involved with Paralympic sport?
A person came to the track who wanted to be coached. He had cerebral palsy. At the time I’d never coached anyone with a disability, but I’d coached lots of different people with different levels of ability, so I just looked at him as a unique being, worked out what his abilities were and he went on to win medals at major championships, so I very much learnt about coaching people with disabilities on the job.
Then later when I was working on the Olympic programme, a job came up in 2009 to work as a Performance Manager under Peter Eriksson on the Paralympic programme. Again I was so fortunate to work with him when he has worked at so many Games, produced 100-plus Paralympic medallists. I was like a sponge; I asked him lots of questions.
British sport has a big challenge on its hands to win more medals in Rio than were won in London. What does the system need to do to support our athletes to get there?
It’s good to have a challenge! We’re all very clear on what we need to do. It will be a huge challenge, not least for the sport of Para-Athletics, but we’re putting systems in place to try and ensure we can do that, so in 2016 we’ve all achieved our targets. I think leaving no stone unturned with the coach-athlete pair, with close monitoring and evaluation, putting systems in place to ensure athletes can keep progressing within the system, and also identifying new athletes through various channels. All the different things we’re working on are trying to ensure everything is in place and the right athletes are with the right coach, to go on and deliver those medals for us, and hopefully golds!
How are initiatives like Para Coach2RIO helping?
I think they’re going to be critical. We’re less than two and a half years out from Rio and the coaches in the system now are generally going to be those that will coach athletes to Rio, so we need to make sure they are in the best possible position to support the athletes. The athlete-coach pair is crucial and the ParaCoach2RIO initiatives can only support that relationship going forward.
Getting the sports together is really good. It helps you find out what other sports are doing and pick up things you can take back to make your programme better, and hopefully they’ve picked up things from us too. The cross pollination really works. Speaking to other coaches and especially, for me, other Head Coaches, who have done a full cycle, it’s really useful. It can impact on a medal, so why wouldn’t you do it?
How important is a coach's personal and professional development to the success of their athletes?
Coaches are selfless, but we need to take time to get re-energised and take a step back to make sure we’re doing the right things. Making coaches focus on their own pathway is essential, not just for their own personal development, but for making a positive impact on their athletes.
This [initiatives like ParaCoach2Rio] is a first step to giving some credence and value to it. We’re saying to coaches, “without your support, athletes won’t deliver”.
You are the first female Head Coach within British Athletics. What more can be done to encourage more female coaches across all sports?
Women have to put themselves forward. We bring a lot of skill sets to the table, and definitely to performance sport. Initiatives like Athlete to Coach are great, as they are identifying good quality female athletes or existing coaches and giving them the skill set to move on. It’s a hard slog, but you must not put any barriers on yourself. The sky really is the limit. If you decide you can only achieve “x” that’s all you’ll achieve.
I grew up in a working class family, was one of six children, lived on a council estate; if someone had said to me I’d be where I am today I would have said “no!”, but because my mum always told me “you can achieve whatever you want to achieve”, and I believed her, and knew I had to work hard to get there because no one is going to give you anything - that’s always stayed with me. I have a really high work ethic, but you also have to be really confident in your own abilities.
What's your proudest moment as a coach?
My CP women’s relay team winning bronze in London. When I first said we were going to put a women’s CP relay team together, everyone laughed at me! I had to prove everyone wrong. We won a bronze in New Zealand [at the World Championships] and then went and won a Paralympic medal at London 2012 and a National record, so for me that was pretty outstanding.
And as an athlete?
When I was starting out, I never realised I was good, until I ran in a Northern Championship and ran 11.4. I was 19 and it put me third in the country. Up until then I hadn’t realised I was any good and that was the day I realised. Even though I went on to win Commonwealth medals that was the first time I believed I could do well. Before then I was just playing at it, but then I sat down with my coach and he asked me what I was going to do and I said “train!”
Paula Dunn is the Paralympic Head Coach at British Athletics. Find out more on the British Athletics website.